Some Fear a Vast Sell-Off of U.S. Land

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Times Staff Writer

A budget bill that the House of Representatives is expected to vote on this week would force the federal government to put “For Sale” signs on public recreation lands in California and the West, including national forest holdings throughout the Sierra Nevada and remote parts of the Mojave Desert.

Backers of the bill insist that the amount of land affected would be small, but former Interior Department officials and some experts on natural resource law say the legislation could result in the sale of millions of acres.

Slipped into a massive budget-cutting bill late last month by the House Resources Committee, headed by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), the provision has been eclipsed by higher-profile battles over two other controversial plans that would expand oil drilling offshore and allow it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those proposals have been dropped for now, but the land-sale provision remains.


The bill would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on the patenting -- or sale -- of federal lands to mining companies for a fraction of their mineral worth. While the patent fees would rise from $2.50 or $5 an acre to $1,000, the price would continue to exclude the mineral worth, which can amount to billions of dollars.

In a rewrite of an 1872 mining law that reverses long-standing federal policy that the government keep public lands, the proposal also orders the Interior Department to sell land adjacent to mining claims for “economic development.”

Under the provision, legal experts say anyone would be able to stake a new claim on those neighboring parcels, do some survey work and, without having to prove a valuable mineral discovery, purchase the land for as little as $1,000 an acre.

Because the West -- especially the Sierra Nevada, California desert and Colorado Rockies -- is studded with millions of mining claims dating to the 1800s, former Interior officials say the measure would open the door to the widespread privatization of federal lands used by millions of people for hiking, hunting, and off-road driving.

“When I first saw it, it took my breath away. It’s really quite stunning,” said Mat Millenbach, who was deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during President Bush’s first term. “This could have the impact of making public lands harder to get to and use. There will be huge issues of incompatible uses.”

House GOP leaders have had trouble rounding up the votes for the budget bill, which includes a number of contested spending cuts. But a floor vote is anticipated this week. If approved, the legislation would then go to a conference committee, where legislators would iron out differences between the House and Senate budget bills.


The Senate version does not contain the mining provisions, and opposition is surfacing among Senate Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California and Max Baucus of Montana, who said in a release Tuesday that he would fight the land sales “every step of the way.”

Although the proposed mining law changes exclude national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas designated by Congress, dropping the patent moratorium would allow miners to move ahead on hundreds of old claims within park boundaries that had been largely halted by the moratorium. Most of those claims are in California, including 36 in Death Valley National Park and 432 in the Mojave National Preserve.

Park officials are worried that other parts of the proposal could overturn Mojave National Preserve protections that restrict patent claims to minerals and prohibit private acquisition of the land in which the minerals are found. “We are concerned that it’s going to open up the Mojave,” said David Shaver, chief of geological resources for the National Park Service.

The mining provisions were drafted by Republican Jim Gibbons of Nevada. He and Pombo have complained that the federal government owns too much land in the West, and Pombo is spearheading efforts to rescind habitat protections for imperiled wildlife on 150 million acres.

Gibbons was unavailable for comment. In a statement released by his office, he said the mining proposal has been “misconstrued and misinterpreted. The claim that these provisions will result in a giveaway of our public lands is simply false.... It is illegal to file a mining claim without the intent to mine. It is not realistic or honest to claim that mining companies will suddenly turn into real estate speculators.”

When the provision was adopted by the resources committee, he said the “purchase of lands is absolutely vital to the health of Nevada’s rural communities because it expands the tax base of the local government.”


Resources Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy pointed to the committee’s bill report, which said the public purchase provision would allow for the “sale of slivers and small parcels of federal land” next to mine operations. “You or I as private citizens cannot go to the federal government and say I want a mining claim,” Kennedy said. “There has to be a legitimate application from a legitimate party.”

But the BLM, which administers the federal mineral estate, says anyone can stake a mining claim on federal land. They simply have to file an application with the government, physically stake out the boundaries and pay a $125 annual fee to hold it.

Indeed, claims have been sold on EBay. John Leshy, the Interior Department’s top lawyer during the Clinton administration, said there is a problem in the Sierra Nevada with people staking mining claims to hold their favorite fishing or camping spot.

Moreover, the section of the pending bill that deals with land purchases by the public does not require a valuable mineral discovery on the new claim. And it orders the Interior secretary to make the land “available for purchase to facilitate sustainable economic development.”

“The way I read this, you simply go out onto the public lands still open for [claims], you find some past mineral development activities, and you stake claims contiguous to those and you claim the right to purchase,” said Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado School of Law.

Aside from holding a claim, the only requirement for the buyer is to do $7,500 of “mineral development work,” which can consist of surveying or road building. The land would be sold for $1,000 an acre or fair market value, minus the worth of any mineral deposits.


“It looks to me like the whole purpose of it is to take public land and to put it in the hands of private people with the full intention of having them develop the land for whatever purposes they see fit,” said Sean Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center. “The more I look at this, the more shocking it really is.”

The bill gives no time limits for the claims around which land will be sold, opening up a potentially huge universe. Since 1976, slightly more than 3.2 million claims, averaging 20 acres, have been filed on federal lands, the BLM said. Roughly 282,000 of them were in California.

Millions more were filed going back to Gold Rush days. “At one time or another over the last 130 years, much of the land in the West has had an unpatented mining claim on it,” Leshy said. “So it’s very hard to say how many acres are involved in that. But it’s potentially a very big number.”


Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.